Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

[Glynnis Stevenson]

For fear of the growing power of the Muscovite state, Poland and Lithuania signed the Treaty of Lublin in 1569, uniting the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania within a new entity called the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (Rzeczpospolita). Henceforth, according to an edict of King Sigismund II Augustus (r. 1548-1571), the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were united in one
indivisible state with a shared monarch. Poland and Lithuania had previously entered into treaties with one another in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, but several wars between these nations had broken those treaties. The Union of Lublin was a singular achievement that sought to permanently bind the two states. Until 1795, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, at 400,000 square miles, was one of the largest and most powerful states in Europe. Both the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania maintained their own territory, armies, and treasuries. While Lithuania’s statehood was protected within the Commonwealth, Poland’s aristocracy held a significantly larger share of power than their Lithuanian contemporaries. The Polish gentry used this power to acquire territory and positions of power within Lithuania. Furthermore, Lithuania’s elected monarchy meant that the Grand Duchy was often ruled by foreign kings from France, Sweden, and Saxony.

Lithuania’s ties to Poland caused economic decline in both states in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as Lithuanian peasants were, for the most part, poorer than Polish peasants. The decentralized Commonwealth could not compete with its aggressive European neighbors. As of the fifteenth century, Muscovite princes, newly liberated from Mongol rule, sought to expand their state. The Muscovite princes laid claim to the formerly Russian lands of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. From 1654 to 1667, Swedish and Russian forces poured into Lithuanian territory and the Grand Duchy lost most of Ukraine to Russia. Nearly constant war, famine, and plague decimated the Lithuanian population. Between 1648 and 1697, the population declined by almost fifty percent (O’Connor, 19). The Great Northern War of 1700 to 1715 between the armies of Tsar Peter the Great of Russia and King Charles XII of Sweden further devastated the region.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was at the crossroads of three major powers: Austria, Prussia, and Russia. All three of these ambitious nations sought to carve up the vast territory of the Commonwealth. Together, they carved up the region in three distinct partitions in 1772, 1793, and 1795. After the first partition, Empress Catherine the Great of Russia (r. 1762-1796) had acquired most of the territory that makes up modern-day Belarus as well as Latgale, an area which was ethnically Latvian and politically Polonized. The second partition consisted of Russia taking the rest of modern Belarus, western Ukraine, and much of Lithuania. In the final partition of 1795, Catherine the Great took the rest of Ukraine, Lithuania, and the Duchy of Courland. Poland was systematically torn apart by Russia, Prussia, and Austria during all three of these partitions. Following the final partition, Poland and Lithuania ceased to exist as independent nations for over a century and the Commonwealth was at an end.

Politics in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

The Commonwealth functioned under the doctrine, “Our state is a republic under the presidency of the King” (Benfield, 254). In a speech to the Parliament in 1605, Chancellor Jan Zamoyski pronounced in support of this doctrine, “The King reigns but does not govern” (Benfield, 254). The Commonwealth had several governing bodies: the Parliament, the Sejm (“state legislature”), a Senat, which was a sort of Privy Council, and an elected king. The King was obligated to respect the rights of his citizens in accordance with the Henrician Articles, which were a contract between the nobility and the king.

The king’s power was limited in favor of the nobility. Each king had to pledge allegiance to the Henrician Articles which, among other things, guaranteed religious freedom to citizens of the Commonwealth. In addition to the Henrician Articles, each king-elect had to swear to a Pacta Conventa, which were individual vows that each king made. The Sejm could veto the king’s decisions concerning important matters of state including, but not limited to, the passage of new laws, diplomacy, declarations of war and peace, and taxation. The underlying constitution of the Commonwealth as of 1573 was the Złota Wolność, or “Golden Liberty”. The “Golden Liberty” entailed several important articles. First, all nobles had the right to vote for the elected king. Second, the king was required to convene the Sejm every two years. Third, each king had to make a Pacta Conventa with the nobles. Fourth, the nobles could legally rebel against any king who violated the articles of the “Golden Liberty”, the Henrician Articles, or his Pacta Conventa. Fifth, the Warsaw Confederation Act of 1573 guaranteed religious freedom for all people living in the Commonwealth. And lastly, each individual member of the Sejm has the right of liberum veto to overrule decisions made by the majority in the Sejm.

When King Sigismund II Augustus died in 1572, the powerful Jagiellon dynasty ended after almost two centuries on the throne. His death also disrupted the government of the Polish-Lithuanian while it was still in its infancy. The nobility took this as an opportunity to elect a weak foreign king who would acquiesce to their requests. Each time the death of a monarch posed opportunities for a new election, the nobility chose a weak-minded king. This policy often backfired and the Commonwealth was served by several ineffective monarchs who bickered incessantly with the nobility. Foreign kings often subordinated the needs of the Commonwealth to those of their homelands. The reigns of the two Swedish kings of the House of Vasa culminated in the Deluge of 1655, during which Sweden came to occupy the Commonwealth. This occupation marked the beginning of the decline of the Commonwealth.

Eventually, the government of the Commonwealth realized that their system needed substantial alterations if it wished to continue. In 1791, the Sejm, presided over by the reformist King Stanisław August Poniatowski, adopted the May 3rd Constitution, which replaced the elected monarchy with a policy of hereditary succession. It also abolished many destructive “Golden Liberty” articles, such as the liberum veto, and increased the rights of the peasantry and the bourgeoisie. The reforms passed angered the Commonwealth’s foreign enemies, who preferred a weak Commonwealth to one on the rise. The Commonwealth was almost immediately attacked by its foreign neighbors and disintegrated completely during the Third Partition of Poland in 1795. Reform had come too late to save the Commonwealth.

Economic Conditions in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

The economy of the Commonwealth was based on feudal agriculture. Eighty percent of the Commonwealth’s population lived in rural areas. Slavery had been abolished in the fifteenth century in Poland and in 1588 in Lithuania, but serfdom was still legal. Many nobles owned large farms, called folwark, tilled by serfs that produced agriculture goods for both domestic and foreign trade. Over time though, the Commonwealth’s grain output lagged behind that of other states and they were unwilling to modernize their systems of agriculture and transport. Understandably, many serfs tried to flee. To solve this problem, Commonwealth imposed a process called second serfdom, by which the serfs had to work longer hours and had even fewer freedoms. This chokehold on the serfs worked well as an economic arrangement for the nobility in the golden years of the Commonwealth. But nearly constant warfare from the late seventeenth century onward deteriorated foreign trade networks and halted profits made from grain.

The dominance of agriculture and the preeminence of the nobility over the bourgeoisie slowed urbanization. Only twenty percent of the Commonwealth’s population was urbanized in the seventeenth century. Comparatively, the Netherlands was fifty percent urbanized in the same time period. The slow emergence of the bourgeoisie meant that industries were slow to develop. Social conflict was evident throughout Europe in this period, but the dominance of the nobility was especially prevalent in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Poland-Lithuania had three major exports that accounted for almost ninety percent of their trade: grain, cattle, and fur. The Commonwealth was responsible for a large portion of the sixteenth century Western European market in these three goods. From their trading partners, the Commonwealth imported luxuries such as wine, fruit, spices, tapestries, clothes, fish, and beer. Exporting necessities and importing luxuries eventually tipped the trade balance against the Commonwealth in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Culture in Poland-Lithuania

The Commonwealth was a European center for modern political and social thought. Its near-democratic political system was revered by intellectuals across Europe and praised by philosophers such as Erasmus. While other European nations became entangled in the bloody Counter-Reformation, Poland-Lithuania remained remarkably tolerant of its many religious groups. Catholics, Jews, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant, and Muslim communities coexisted in a way unheard of in other developed countries. Cracow is home to one of the oldest universities in the world, Jagiellonian University (founded 1364). Along with Vilnius University (founded in 1579), it was a major center for learning and the exchange of ideas in the Commonwealth.

Commonwealth art and music were fascinating amalgams of Latin and Eastern Orthodox culture. The painted icons of this period show how the two cultures both coexisted and blended to create a style unseen in other nations. While post-Renaissance naturalism was adopted from other nations, it was blended with the bombast of the Polish baroque style and incorporated into Orthodox painting. Cossack Baroque architecture inspired by Polish patterns was extremely popular. It is nearly impossible to define Commonwealth art concisely because its influences are so widespread. Music was omnipresent in both religious and secular life. Many noblemen, the major patrons of artists and composers, founded choirs, built opera houses, and even had their own private orchestras. King Sigismund III imported famous Italian composers and conductors for his royal orchestra. Accomplished Polish and Lithuanian musicians were also favorites at the royal court. Like the visual arts, music in Poland-Lithuania was at a cultural crossroads between East and West.


Works Cited:

  • Dictionary of Quotations (Classical). London: Harbottle Thomas Benfield, 2009. s.v. “Jan Zamoyski’s Speech in Parliament, 1605.”
  • Andres Kasekamp, A History of the Baltic States, (New York City: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010).
  • Kevin O’Connor, The History of the Baltic States, (Westport, Connecticut and London: Greenwood Press, 2003).
  • Andrejs Plakans, A Concise History of the Baltic States, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011).
  • Wikipedia Contributors, “Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth,” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia.